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Faculty members of California State University, the nation's largest four-year university system, overwhelmingly authorized a strike on Wednesday after nearly two years in which they and the administration failed to negotiate a contract succeeding one that expired in July 2005.

An arbitrator will continue working with administration officials and the California Faculty Association, the union representing some 24,000 Cal State instructors, to end the deadlock, which centers on salaries. But if meetings over a 10-day "quiet period" now break down, a strike could begin as early as next month, said the union's president, John Travis.

The faculty walkout would be the largest in the history of American higher education, although the union says it would be a rolling strike — that is, it would begin on one of the system's 23 campuses and last there for two days, then move on to another campus for two days, and so on. In this way, union officials say, disruption to the schedules of students, particularly graduating seniors, would be kept to a minimum.

Without elaborating, Cal State administrators said they would have contingency plans to deal with any walkout.

"This is just what unions do," said Clara Potes-Fellow, a university spokeswoman. "There will be interruptions, of course, but that doesn't mean that the university will be shut down."

The union said 94 percent of more than 8,000 members who had voted on a strike favored authorizing it.

At the university's Dominguez Hills campus, in Carson, Travis was cheered by dozens of his members, who wore black T-shirts bearing the inscription "I don't want to strike, but I will."

"We are a faculty that's fed up," he told them, "and we are a faculty that's ready to walk off the job."

Many low- and middle-income students from around the state, about a third of them the first in their families to attend college, rely on the Cal State system for an education. But faculty salaries there lag far behind those at other universities and, the union says, have remained stagnant since 2002.

Moody's Investors Service reported this week that Cal State had cash reserves of $1.2 billion, which union officials say gives the university the financial flexibility to resolve the dispute.

Administrators say that this money has been allocated to other purposes and cannot be used for teacher pay.